The Naval History of Delaware

By Cecilia Sequeira, Naval History and Heritage Command, Communication and Outreach Division

The state of Delaware was the first of 13 states to ratify the U.S. Constitution on December 7, 1787, giving rise to its moniker: “the first state.” Thomas Jefferson described it by another name: “the diamond state.”  The founding father’s nickname for Delaware had less to with sparkling gemstones and more to do with its rich naval history. The former president considered Delaware a jewel among other states due its prominence along the eastern seaboard. Its location was of strategic value to the U.S. Navy and the nation’s coastal commerce. Delaware is bordered by the Atlantic Ocean and Delaware Bay, as well as by the states, Pennsylvania, Maryland and New Jersey, affording easy access to major metropolitan areas in the northeast.

Early in its history, Delaware was home to an important ship building industry. Just as their Native American predecessors had done, 17th and 18th century European settlers used the Broadkill River for transportation. Immigrants used the river to transport products to local markets until craftsmen began producing larger vessels capable of reaching distant ports. By the early 1800s, Milton was home to several shipyards catering to local commerce. By the mid-19th century, many of the ships produced in Delaware were made for coastal and trans-Atlantic trade. However, Delaware’s hardwood resources were soon exhausted, and the ship building industry declined in the late 1800s.  By then, larger ships tested the physical limitations of the river and steam-driven technology began displacing sailboats.

In addition to its rich naval industry, Delaware also gave rise to several prominent Sailors.  One such leader was Delaware native Thomas Macdonough, who is remembered for his keen naval strategy and skill during the War of 1812. Captain Macdonough commanded a U.S. Navy squadron on Lake Champlain on September 11, 1814. By securing Lake Champlain, Macdonough’s squadron choked the British supply chain to ground troops south of the lake, forcing them to retreat north to Canada.  Four U.S. Navy ships are named after the commodore and his distinguished service: Macdonough I (Torpedo Boat Destroyer No. 9), USS Macdonough II (DD-331), USS Macdonough III (DD-351), and USS Macdonough IV (DLG-8).

As distinguished as Macdonough’s service was for the U.S. Navy, he shared a lot in common with another Delaware native: Commodore Jacob Jones.  During the War of 1812, Jones commanded the Sloop-of-War Wasp and fought valiantly against the British. When he returned, he received a gold medal from Congress and a promotion to captain. Jones survived being a prisoner of war during multiple conflicts and served in the U.S. Navy for over five decades, reaching the rank of commodore. In recognition of his service, the U.S. Navy named two destroyers and an escort ship in his honor, including: USS Jacob Jones I (Destroyer No. 61), USS Jacob Jones II (Destroyer No. 130), and USS Jacob Jones III (DE-130).

To learn more about Delaware’s ships, Sailors, and interesting U.S. Navy history, check out the infographic below:

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